It’s the age of instant accessibility, interactivity and personalization. We live in a time when we want solutions to everything instantly, and would love if somebody could even sense what we like and dislike even before we told them. Recent technological, digital and engineering advancements such as Artificial Intelligence (AI), Data analytics and Internet of Things (IoT), and other cutting-edge technologies has turned what was once a distant dream into present day reality. These integrated technologies behold a valuable promise to enable a great deal of personalization and help solve a multitude of problems for the aviation sector as it stands at the cusp of disruptive changes today.
This week, we interviewed Mr. Ravinder Pal Singh, Chief Information and Innovation Officer, Vistara. Vistara is a joint venture of Tata Sons Limited and Singapore Airlines Limited (SIA). The brand is redefining air travel in India by providing travelers a seamless and personalized flying experience by blending service excellence with exceptional hospitality.
Read on as Ravi discusses trends in the aviation sector in the coming decade, his take on advanced technologies like blockchain, AI and how Vistara is leading the aviation sector by intelligently leveraging technological innovations to enhance customer experiences.
1. Please give our readers a quick intro of Vistara – TATA SIA Airlines Ltd. – its history and background.
Vistara is a joint venture of two of world’s biggest and most respected organizations, Tata Sons and Singapore Airlines, that started operations a little over four years ago in 2015. Vistara entered the Indian aviation industry at a time when air travel largely only meant transportation from Point A to B, lacking excitement and perceived as a mundane and mechanical experience.
With a unique product and focus on providing world-class service in India, Vistara filled this void and has since done things differently to remind people of the charming experience that flying is and that it is in fact an experience one can look forward to each time. Since starting operations, Vistara has emerged as India’s favourite airline having won dozens of ‘best in industry’ awards. We have flown over 14 million customers and expanded our network to 24 destinations in India with over 900 flights a week.
2. Every industry today is focusing on digitalization and as the CIO of Vistara leading the transformation yourself, what’s your advice to other CIOs?
I believe that organizations need to add to their appetite of taking risks and continuously work towards building a culture within the company that values nimbleness. It is not the day and age for brands that take time to adapt to change or resist experimenting. I am fortunate to have got the opportunity to work with a company that truly believes in these attributes. But truly, CIOs need to partake in those larger discussions.
I feel a CIO’s responsibilities cannot rest at just embracing new technologies for the business. You cannot innovate in the true sense unless you have a finger on the pulse of your business and your consumers. The understanding of operations control, commercials, consumer touch points and a host of other aspects needs to come through in the innovations that a CIO helps bringing about.
I observe that the role of many CIOs in our continent is largely restricted to managing the IT infrastructure portfolios of their respective companies. Things are different in other parts of the globe. CIOs are increasingly looking at CEO responsibilities, simply because of the depth of understanding of the business in a more holistic way. A CIO is neither a magician nor a pied-piper, he/she is collective digital thinking of the Leadership as a whole with Board acting as a catalyst. My mantra is not complex. As a CIO, I want to induce a culture of creativity with courage; evangelize ideation to solve simple problems and predict future differentiators.
3. Legacy technologies, operational silos and cultural resistance can create barriers in any industry’s digital transformation. What transformation challenges do you think are specific to the aviation sector?
The aviation industry is a dynamic space that depends a great deal on technology for everyday functioning. The industry’s evolution to this day is credited to the power of new technologies. Having said that, it does come with its unique challenges. Civil aviation is a highly regulated industry across the world where all activities are governed. Any new technology developed needs to be screened through many lenses – from safety, security, environment, passenger rights, aviation laws, etc.
Therefore, one can’t introduce innovation in aviation overnight and the speed of transformation is naturally affected. However, we are witnessing that there is an increased impetus on accepting digital innovations in the sector now. Governments, industry bodies and associations today acknowledge the various benefits of embracing new technologies and are increasingly becoming more receptive to technological advancements than before.
4. Vistara has always stood out with its technological innovations. You launched Robot RADA last year. Please elaborate.
Innovation is one of the core values engrained in the DNA of Vistara’s culture. We continue to invest in future technologies such as Artificial intelligence (AI) and Robotics, with a sole objective of elevating our customer’s experience. One of such investments was to create RADA – arguably India’s first robot designed to assist travellers at airports. The idea behind the development of RADA was in action with two major triggers. First, a simple observation that our ground staff who is young, brimming with enthusiasm and full of potential lacked opportunities, as they end up answering similar mundane customer queries.
Although they gained expertise in their particular domains, it left little room for them to explore their skills and leverage them for more strategic activities. Secondly, we realised that there were only a handful organisations seriously working towards the development of high-end technical solutions for the aviation industry and that majority of the technologies for aviation were developed outside of India. Contemplating further into these aspects and owing to the accelerating technological advancements and unfolding consumer behavior, the concept of RADA emerged. The basic premise of the thought was to develop a basic and extremely cost-effective robot that can engage in basic human interactions, to begin with, and can further be developed to perform tasks that are complex.
At present, RADA can scan boarding passes and further provide information on the terminal, departure gates, weather conditions of destination city, real time flight status as well as information about Vistara’s products and services. It greets customers and interacts with them using basic hand movements, and is capable of moving around in the lounge on predefined pathways. Additionally, it can engage with kids and adults alike by playing games and other multimedia content such as songs and videos.
Recently, we further developed RADA in terms of functionality to perform support future use cases, after gauging customer feedback. As a result, it now moves using Autonomous Navigation instead of on predefined paths used earlier. This allows RADA to move more freely within the lounge effectively using its sensors.
5. Vistara World – your state-of-the-art wireless entertainment system, adds to your competitive advantage and meets your objective of providing high-level customer experience. It also lets customers track their aircraft as it flies, using moving map display. Do you think smart mobile applications play a major role in the aviation industry? Explain in context of your app.
The role of the mobile phone in this age of digitization is far from being unknown. Mobile apps play an integral role in bridging the gap between the customer and the brand. It’s the age of instant accessibility, interactivity and personalization. These aspects become even more relevant for a company operating in the service industry, such as airlines. With almost half of the world’s population connected to the internet, it is natural for a customer-focused brand like ours to create delightful digital experiences for customers.
Vistara World is our complimentary wireless inflight entertainment streaming service that customers can use to stream content to their smart handheld devices and laptops. Offering in-flight entertainment with a seat-back system on short flights is a highly cost-intensive proposition, which is mostly unrealistic for airlines to offer, given other high costs involved. The mobile app solution works very well, as it also brings a sense of empowerment to the customers to watch their favourite content on their own screens. This is another very important aspect that reflects the marriage between technology and consumer behavior.
6. Internet of Things based devices are gradually seeing a rise in aviation industry with wearable techs, sensors for tracking customer location, aircraft data management, scanners, electronic tags and more. Do you think IoT has a good opportunity in the aviation sector?
Absolutely. In this digital era, it has become extremely important to implement technology solutions throughout the air travel ecosystem. The next frontier in the race for discovering a whole new dimension to digital transformation is the Internet of Things (IoT)—networks of sensor-equipped, intelligent, exponential technologies that can gather data, interpret it, and take action.
With the increased demand for air travel, airports around the world have become busier than ever, further inconveniencing customers. Adopting IoT for operational solutions can troubleshoot such problems that prevail in a high customer traffic industry such as aviation. A fleet connected to IoT devices can give a significant amount of data output which further gives an airline information needed to recognize or deal with a mechanical issue before it can even strike. This obviously also means safer flights, fewer delays, and end-to-end better customer experience. There are a number of use cases for IoT – baggage tracking, check-in and entertainment are other major areas where IoT can help deliver an unmatched customer experience, and that’s really how the future of all airlines will eventually be.
7. What’s your take on the advanced technologies like blockchain and artificial intelligence? How can their adoption drive innovation?
Technology is considered as the backbone of bringing in positive changes in the aviation industry. With technologies such as AI, ML, biometrics, sensors, chatbots etc., airlines and airports are moving towards the path of developing a whole new ecosystem in which they operate. Today, technology is giving flight to customer experiences in the airline industry. As airlines, we remain optimistic of a bright future, yet spend most of our time thinking of ways to live up to the evolving expectations of today’s air travellers. Airlines today are doing everything possible to make flyers happy. We live in a time when we want solutions to everything instantly, and would love if somebody could even sense what we like and dislike even before we told them.
Recent technological, digital and engineering advancements such as Artificial Intelligence (AI), Data analytics and Internet of Things (IoT), and other cutting-edge technologies has turned what was once a distant dream into present day reality from a service delivery perspective. These integrated technologies behold a valuable promise to enable a great deal of personalization and help solve a multitude of problems for the aviation sector as it stands at the cusp of disruptive changes today. They are also effective enablers for deploying an effective digital strategy to deliver various operational efficiencies such as agile operational capabilities, enhanced systemic integration and transparency in processes.
Technology innovations are transforming not only the airline industry, but also the entire travel ecosystem. Airline customers increasingly expect more comprehensive travel support throughout the entire travel life cycle and adoption of the new age technologies is the only way to cater to these expectations through innovative mediums.
8. Let our readers know some of the trends in you foresee in next ten years?
Machines will play a significant or even a dominant one in all industries, especially in the area of operations. Advances in pure sciences and mathematics will influence and equip future engineering, resulting in disruptions in all domains and reshaping of all industries.
Enterprise technologies will converge into commodity landscape and modern architectures will be dictated by human and machine factors. Values of emerging society and its redefined morality will be the core driver and motivator.
A universal language will appear for the global harmonious society comprising of humans, avatars, surrogates, robotics etc. Nano, neuro and quantum technologies will define zero intelligence and will be the dominant factor in defining next stage of nature and redefining shape of life, hence society.
This is my third eye vision on the evolving technology landscape for the next 25 years.
Also read: “Emerging technologies such as AI and Blockchain to make SDN more intelligent and efficient” –Jerzy Szlosarek, CEO, Epsilon
9. Most of the organizations have or are planning to move to the cloud to be future-ready. But, as they say, the transition is the most difficult. Please share your experience with other CIOs reading your interview.
Born-digital companies or what I call, organizations born in the Cloud, have distinct challenges and of course, advantages as well. The most obvious advantage is that you have a clean slate, but the risk is that you don’t have the second chance to get it right. If the strategy and architecture goes wrong, it weakens the foundation, giving birth to a series of problems. Also, your strategic dependencies are more complex and interdependent on various factors ranging from revenues, cost, operational readiness, human factors, regulations, technology and its architecture and most important digital expectations of a mature organization.
In my professional life as a technologist, I have always taken assignments where there is true opportunity to create body of work. In my current endeavor, we have created arguably the first airline in the world, of which the end-to-end IT infrastructure is built on Cloud.
Our enterprise portfolio and its architecture is a mix of strong core world-class platforms which are complimented by growing portfolio of Robotics, AI and Big Data, which are solving simple and complex problems ranging from different attributes of the customer experience, aircraft and its engineering, optimized operations and connected employees. We are working on various initiatives, which maybe are first in the history of aviation. But, there is still a lot to be done and achieved.